There's little debate among Longhorn fans, players or coaches that the success of quarterback Garrett Gilbert will largely determine the fate of UT's 2010 season.
In order for the Longhorns to defend their Big 12 title and put themselves in position to make another national title run, Gilbert will have to be on top of his game. For that matter, the same could pretty much be said about every college program in America - a quarterback cannot have a bad season and hope to win championships. In Austin, that fact is magnified with the departure of all-American Colt McCoy, the winningest quarterback in the history of college football.
In steps Gilbert, a player with immeasurable talent, to mold a Texas offense that will lose some of its key components in 2010. Gone is McCoy. Gone is the school's all-time leading receiver, Jordan Shipley. And gone are three starters from the offensive line.
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Gilbert is expected to hold his own at the most important position on the field, but what about the surrounding cast? Can Texas find playmakers in the receiving game that can replace Shipley's productivity and consistency? And who will lead the charge for the Longhorn offense in the trenches?
Kyle Hix takes on arguably the most important role among the offensive linemen, shifting from his three-year stint as the team's starting right tackle to the Horns' starting left tackle, where he'll be in charge of protecting Gilbert's blindside while providing leadership on a young o-line.
Hix performed well in the spring after making the switch to the left side, and those closest to him are expecting Hix to tap into his past experiences to make for a smooth transition and a successful 2010 season.
"I was there for his first few practices and down for their clinic. He did a decent job for moving from the right to the left, which is totally backward. You think it's not that hard of a transition, but extremely tough. When you've been on one side for three years and then you move to the other side, it is not easy," said Aledo High School head coach Tim Buchanan, who coached Hix in high school and remains close to the entire Hix family to this day. "In the little bit of time I watched him, I thought he did really well. I talked to coach (Mac) McWhorter at the San Angelo clinic and he really thought Kyle was doing well and was going to make him a good left tackle."
Buchanan remains in close contact with Hix, talking to him regularly during the off-season and texting Hicks after every single Longhorn game. He's known Hix and his family going back to Hix's days as a kindergartner, and Buchanan makes it a point to watch each and every Longhorn game so that he can see Hix in action.
"The first time I watch (a play), I watch Kyle. Even If I watch it live, I watch Kyle, then I replay it and watch the play. I watch each play about three times, so the coach in me comes out," Buchanan said.
At 6-7 ½ and 320 pounds, Hix has the frame that NFL personnel covet, but it's the combination of his natural size and the skills he's developed in Austin that have Hix in a position for what supporters feel will be a big senior season.
"The thing that makes Kyle such a good football player, there are two things - he has great flexibility for a 6-8 kid but he also has exceptional feet," Buchanan said. "And in college, he's gotten so darn strong, that helps him tremendously.
Hix has been a fixture in the Longhorn line over the first three years of his career, having played in all 40 games, starting the last 28 at right tackle. He picked up his first start as a freshman in the Holiday Bowl after the UT staff decided to shuffle its line in what would result in a blowout win over Arizona State (52-34). Hix was awarded the starting spot before the team ever left for bowl practices, with Mac McWhorter calling Buchanan to inform him that Hix would take over the first-team right tacke duties. The move paid off, with the Longhorns churning out 300 yards rushing in the win.
"Kyle came by the weight room during the little break they give them, he was on cloud nine. He was excited. Coach McWhorter also called and told me they were going to give him his first true start in the bowl game, which was just unbelievable for an offensive lineman, especially at a place like The University of Texas."
A four-star prospect coming out of Aledo, Hix gave the Longhorns an early commitment over offers from programs like Oklahoma, TCU and Texas Tech. He earned district offensive MVP during his senior year ("In my 27 years of coaching he's the only offensive linemen I've ever seen get voted MVP," Buchanan said). Hix's UT career took off quicker than most expected when he touched the field in his first game as a true freshman, and the early action even surprised his high school coaches. Hix played football, basketball and participated in track and field, which limited his opportunity for off-season training, but he adjusted quickly to the size and speed of the college game. Or perhaps Hix just camouflaged his confusion well.
"It was funny. When he first got there I'd ask him questions and he'd say, 'When they call a play in the huddle, I get to the line of scrimmage and I know what I'm supposed to do. But then McCoy starts barking out audibles, I'm looking around trying to find someone to tell me who to block,'" Buchanan said. "He came a long way during that year. That's a big jump for anybody but for an offensive linemen, it's such a big jump going from high school to college. It was just amazing."
Along with the move to the left side comes a change in philosophy in the Longhorn offense. The team began work in the spring on a more aggressive running game and a passing attack that will feature play action passes and more work under center. The Texas coaches have said they're completely confident in Hix's abilities to handle the position switch and the changes in the scheme. After some anxious moments for Hix, Buchanan said he too is confident in his former pupil's abilities.
"I talked to him about it before last season. Of course, he was a little nervous. He said 'Coach you don't know how hard it is to move over there. I think I like what I'm doing on the right side.' When they made the move after Uli (Adam Ulatoski) graduated, I think he was excited," Buchanan said. "He's a pretty modest kid, he doesn't talk a whole lot. It's hard to get anything out of him. I guess he's probably a little nervous, he doesn't want to let his team down and he surely doesn't want to let his quarterback get hit in the back of the head. But I think he's up to it. He was a pretty good left tackle for us, so I'm pretty sure he can handle it."
A quiet kid that sticks to his own business, Hix has gradually come out of his shell as his UT career has progressed. Buchanan credits Mack Brown and the UT football family for helping Hix develop on and off the field, and it's the characteristics Hix has built away from the field that make his former coach the most proud.
"He's actually getting where he's opening up a little bit. You can actually carry on a conversation with him. That goes back to the great job coach Brown does in developing his kids, not only as football players, but as good citizens and productive members of our society," Buchanan said.
"Kyle makes good grades, he's going to graduate from college. I think he has a great chance of playing at the next level, but he's going to be a very successful person because of the work he's developed through football. It's carried over into the classroom. He's going to graduate on time. That's what stands out to me."
This fall, Buchanan will make his first trip to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to see Hix play in person (Aledo plays in Austin the night before UT hosts Wyoming). It's a moment that's been four years in the making, and Hix will always hold a special place in Buchanan's heart.
"Whether or not he ever touched the field at Texas, I'm indebted to him. The kid helped me keep my job for four more years," Buchanan said with a laugh.